2019 was the year of the evil clown, with terrifying new interpretations of the Joker, Pennywise, and Mr. Mime leering from our cinema screens. 2020, meanwhile, looks set to be the year of the super-heroine, as Black Widow and Wonder Woman gear up for their latest celluloid runarounds. What better character to carry the transition than Margot Robbie’s pig-tailed hellraiser, star of Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)?
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
Cathy Yan (director), Christina Hodson (screenplay writer), Matthew Libatique (cinematographer), Evan Schiff and Jay Cassidy (editors)
Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ella Jay Basco, Ali Wong, Ewan McGregor (cast)
Warner Bros. / DC Films
February 7, 2020
Introduced in 2016’s muddled Suicide Squad, Robbie’s Harley Quinn has now fought her way into her own film courtesy of director Cathy Yan and screenwriter Christina Hodson. The story begins with Harley ending her relationship with the Joker and pulling her life back together; but no sooner has she escaped the Clown Prince does Harley run into the machinations of another Gotham crime lord — the gangster known as Black Mask (Ewan McGregor). The ensuing series of events also embroil teenage street thief Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Black Mask’s good-hearted assistant Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and murderous vigilante Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), all of whom end up in the conflict between Harley and her new foe.
Of all the words that can be used to describe the film, “subtle” is not one of them. Birds of Prey feels as though a stack of Harley Quinn comics, a couple of Quentin Tarantino’s movies and a offbeat chick flick (the kind where the DVD case is made of magenta plastic) have been thrown into a blender, and the resultant smoothie laced for good measure with lashings of artificial sweeteners, colours, and preservatives.
The entire story is narrated by Harley, ensuring that not a single plot beat happens without being spelt out in a Brooklyn vocal fry. The opening sequence showing Harley’s backstory is done using cartoon animation, while each halfway significant character is given a brief graffiti-style shot in which their name pops up in animated text. When Harley blows up the chemical plant in which she and the Joker were created, the building explodes in an improbable display of colourful fireworks; when she invades a police station, she packs a gun that fires wads of glitter confetti. The costume department does nothing by halves — even the policewoman ends up in a bulletproof bustier. And then we have Ewan McGregor playing his villain like a ventriloquist dummy parody of an obnoxious yuppie.
The film inherits much of its aesthetic from Suicide Squad, which had a similarly in-your-face approach. But Suicide Squad‘s frantic stylings appear to have come about as a result of the film being retooled at the last minute to mimic Guardians of the Galaxy. In Birds of Prey, on the other hand, the day-glow-spray-paint-on-a-sugar-rush ethos was intentional from the get-go. The difference between the two films is substantial: for all its brashness and noise, Birds of Prey treats its material with complete conviction. It takes the time to build an engaging Gotham City, and surrounds its anti-heroine with a strong cast; while some of the characters get rather more to do than others, each becomes a vital part of the whole.
The issue of excess characters is something that superhero team-up films often struggle with. The Avengers series managed to avoid the problem by using characters who had been established in other films, but Suicide Squad, Justice League and much of the X-Men franchise became bogged down with superfluous superfolks. In Birds of Prey, however, every one of the five central characters adds a new layer of texture to Gotham.
Renee Montoya represents the city’s fragile law and order. Black Canary, who fell into the world of crime after losing her mother, embodies the human cost of Gotham’s street battles; while her character arc is often obscured by the frantic cartoon action, Smollett-Bell’s charismatic performance does much to save her from being sidelined altogether. Huntress, despite coming complete with another tragic backstory, is used as the butt of jokes — a parody of a grim comic book vigilante, serving as straight partner to the wackier characters.
At the heart of all this is the relationship between Harley and Cassandra Cain. The latter character — in the comics, an assassin and martial artist who took on the mantle of Batgirl — is here reimagined as an adolescent foster kid with a fondness for picking pockets, who finds a makeshift elder sister in Harley. While the two do not get to spend much of the runtime together — just as they’ve started to bond, the climax tears them apart again – their sequences as a buddy-crime team are strong enough to leave an impression. The film’s quieter moments tend to feel like brief gasps for breath before descending back into riotous action, but the scenes of Harley and Cassandra going on a shoplifting spree or chilling at Harley’s apartment are more thoughtful and considered: special credit should go to child actress Ella Jay Basco, whose down-to-earth portrayal of Cassandra makes her a fitting counterpoint to the extravagant Harley.
The sisterly relationship between Harley and Cassandra is also an unusually subtle example of the film’s gender dynamics. By and large, Birds of Prey does for feminism what Michael Bay’s Transformers did for dudebros, depicting a world in which women are almost all badass glamour models and men are almost all sleazeballs, ripe to be fed to Harley’s pet hyena. The theme of abusive or entitled males runs through the film: Harley’s relationship with the Joker is paralleled by Renee’s relationship with her former police partner, who bagged himself a promotion after taking credit for her work; meanwhile, the scene that establishes Black Mask as a credible threat, rather than a cartoon bad-dude, shows him venting his anger on a random nightclub guest by forcing her to strip at knife-point. This is all rather near-the-knuckle, but in the context of such a loud, cartoonish film, it works.
Birds of Prey sets out with a very basic goal: to take the messiness of Suicide Squad and transform it into something that works. If anything, it over-achieves, retaining the aspects of the earlier film that worked – most notably Robbie’s portrayal of Harley Quinn — and offering a solid corrective for everything that didn’t. The relentless procession of glitter-flecked violence and bleach-blonde mayhem will not be to everyone’s tastes, but viewers who like a bit of hard candy in their superhero films should be licking their lips.